Penang street food is some of the best in the world.
Street food in Penang is “fast food” but not as you know it. Dishes are cooked to order and served up in minutes by independent vendors who have been at it for years. They only do one or two specialities each, but they do them well. I love the thriving street food culture found literally on the streets (our favourite were Chulia and Kimberley close to our hotel), outside kopitiams (coffee shops) and in food halls where a bunch of vendors gather under one roof with lots of tables in the middle.
I love the smells of hawkers cooking delicious things, the clatter of colourful melamine plates and having amazing food at every corner. If there was only one rule when visiting this Malaysian island, it would be to eat well. Don’t worry about spending time researching where the best places are, because in reality, it’s all damn good. If you really want some local insight, you can always ask at your hotel. After two wonderful trips, these are some of the street food dishes that I enjoyed the most. I can’t wait to get back to Malaysia!
1. Char Kway Teow
This has to be my favourite noodle dish in the world and Penang is the one of the best places to find it. Prawns, cockles, bean sprouts, egg and lard are tossed briefly in a well-seasoned wok with thin rice noodles, chilli and a secret sauce unique to every vendor. The wok-hei (breath of the wok) is almost an ingredient in itself. It’s cooked to order in minutes, right in front of your eyes. You’ll never get two the same.
2. Assam Laksa
Assam Laksa is probably the most famous dish in Penang street food dish – a tangy/sour fish noodle soup made with tamarind, served with chilli, cucumber, onion, mint, pineapple and belacan prawn paste. It is packed full of flavour and hits all the taste notes. Personally, I’m not a diehard fan (unlike my two Malaysian best friends) and found it a little too overwhelmingly fishy… however I still appreciate everything that is going on in this classic dish that you definitely should try.
A popular dessert/drink/soup that is always fun to eat, made of pandan noodles, palm sugar, red beans, coconut milk and shaved ice. Another one of my favourite things, and super refreshing to eat when it’s hot outside.
Like a delicious fresh spring roll filled with vegetables like bean sprouts, turnips, grated carrot, lettuce and crab and sometimes served with a sweet sauce, but of course the fillings vary with every vendor. Variations of this dish exist all over Asia and I had a similar one in Manila called ‘lumpia’. This dish is all about texture because the flavours are a little more subtle.
There’s something amazing about eating grilled meat on sticks on a bustly street during a sultry night. The delicious smell and wafting smoke is a sign of great things to come. I loved watching the hawkers fan the flames as they tended the satay sticks until perfectly cooked. They always came served with a sauce, but they were more delicious on their own! We usually ordered an extra 10 to keep on hand for midnight snacking purposes…
“Rojak” is the Malaysian word for “mixture” – a salad of fruit and vegetables (typically pineapple, cucumber, raw mango and apple, but it changes based on where you are in Malaysia) in a sticky shrimp sauce, sprinkled with roasted peanuts. It sounds a little crazy, but the flavours really work and it makes a great snack.
7. Apam Balik
One of my favourite new discoveries – folded pancakes filled with peanuts, creamed corn and sometimes even coconut or banana. I ate as many of these as I could find – some were crispy with paper-thin edges and others were thicker and more cakey. These make an equally amazing breakfast or dessert.
8. Ais Kacang
I love this quirky dessert as a sure way to beat the heat on a sultry night at the hawker market. Shaved ice is topped with all manner of things – rose syrup, palm sugar syrup, various jellies, red beans, creamed corn, peanuts and more. Sounds a little crazy, but trust me, it’s good.
9. Wonton Mee
I eat this a lot when I visit Malaysia because even though there has been a huge influx of Malaysian restaurants in Sydney, a good Wonton Mee is still pretty hard to find. It’s clearly a Chinese influenced dish with fresh egg noodles tossed in a mysterious dark sauce with wontons and soup, char sui pork, steamed greens and pickled chillies. Even Anthony Bourdain is a fan!
10. Fresh Coconut
It’s gotta be one of the most refreshing drinks in Asia. Usually a guy with a machete will hack it open for you, so its fresh as can be. I can’t get enough fresh coconut juice when I’m travelling in Malaysia.
11. Roasted Chicken Rice
Chicken rice was my earliest introduction to Malaysian food and so has a special place in my heart. The fluffy rice is cooked in chicken stock for flavour and you also get delicious garlic-chilli dipping sauce on the side. I am more used to the boiled or poached version, so the roasted skin was a nice change and super flavoursome.
12. Roti Canai
This dish is evidence of the large Indian population in Malaysia. Watching roti being made is a thrill – lots of twirling, twisting and folding of dough by expert roti makers. The rich flaky piping-hot roti is served with a curry sauce and makes a super delicious and cheap breakfast.
13. Chee Cheong Fun
Another Chinese influenced dish of rolled up fresh rice noodles served with a black shrimp sauce, chilli paste and a scattering of roasted sesame seeds and crispy fried shallots. It’s a lovely lunch or snack and only cost about 2RM, less than $1!
14. Koay Teow Th’ng
This nourishing and restorative soup originated in China, with migrants bringing the flat rice noodle ‘koay teow’ with them to Malaysia, the same noodles as used in Char Kway Teow. The soup is a clear broth with fish balls, pork mince patties, chicken slices, lettuce, shallots and chillies. At first I thought that it was a strange combination of ingredients but I really loved it for breakfast, especially the lettuce!
15. Pineapple Tarts
One morning I got hungry on the way to breakfast (haha) and stopped at a street side stand to grab a few pineapple tarts and pandan sponge cakes, which were so good that it became our daily routine while we were there. The pastry is super light and crumbly and inside was a delicious pineapple jam.